By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN – Anthony J. Barsamian has become a prominent figure representing Armenian-Americans today through his work with the Armenian Assembly of America. As a new co-chairman of its board of trustees, he is leading efforts to revitalize the Assembly. As an active member of the Armenian Church, he also has just become the first member of this church to be elected as head of the Massachusetts Council of Churches (see accompanying article on page 9).
Barsamian has always been proud of his background. He said, “Members of my family came here to the US both before and after the Armenian Genocide. We are from the Worcester community. We lived on Laurel Street, which is where the first Armenian church in the US was located. My father worked in one of the wire mill factories. I feel that I understand the community in many aspects from its origins, though of course these took place at an earlier period, and how Armenians had to deal with many hardships when they first came to the US.”
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Barsamian went to Suffolk Law School in Boston. He began working at a law firm after graduating, but soon started his own firm, now called Hutchings Barsamian Mandelcorn and Robinson, where he is managing partner, with 10 attorneys in the firm and two locations.
Barsamian’s long history of involvement with the Assembly started after his graduation from law school. His working in George Keverian’s office during law school led to being asked to help with President Levon Ter-Petrosian of Armenia’s visit to Boston in 1994. In the process, Barsamian got to know Robert Aram Kaloosdian, one of the founding members of the Assembly, and Carolyn G. Mugar, then (and now) its president. He later became a member of the Assembly board of directors, in the early 2000s, and from 2004 to 2006 was the chairman of that board (the board of directors was merged with the board of trustees at the end of his term). Barsamian recalled that in those years the Assembly had expanded, and had a large staff in Washington DC, Los Angeles and Armenia. Among its accomplishments during those years was to help regularize US-Armenian economic relations. An act of Congress, signed into law by the US president, granted Armenia normal trade partner status in 2004 and lowered trade duties on Armenian goods entering the US.
After this period, Barsamian spent more time on specific projects in Armenia. He joined the board of the Armenia Marriott Hotel Yerevan. Around the same time, in 2007 or 2008, he joined the Armenian Tree Project (ATP), which was founded by Mugar in 1994 and affiliated with the Armenian Assembly.
Barsamian said, “What I really like about ATP is that it is built around the education of the younger generations.”
He found its work in Armenia to be extremely significant. He said, “It is probably the most symbolic gesture we can make for the country. Putting a shovel in the soil and planting trees, helping rural development in the villages, and reminding the country about sustainability is probably one of the most noble things we can do. It shows we are there for the future and want to protect village life.”
Barsamian serves on ATP’s executive committee at present.
Barsamian traveled a lot to Armenia for these kinds of projects, and had some fun serendipitous encounters. Last year, while he attended an ATP meeting in October Yerevan with Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Garen Nazarian, Conan O’Brien happened to be staying at the Marriott Armenia Hotel while preparing a special episode of his late night talk show about Armenia. Barsamian said, “Knowing he was from Brookline [Mass.], we said hello, and asked if we could have a picture. Later we spoke with Sona Movsesian, his assistant.”
Barsamian became more directly involved in the administration of the Assembly in 2015, as part of an ambitious reorganizational effort. In a recent interview, Barsamian said, “The Assembly founders, people like Hrair Hovnanian and Aram Kaloosdian, asked that a new generation come into leadership. We are bringing that new generation into the Armenian Assembly.”
Barsamian and Van Z. Krikorian were elected in February 2015 as co-chairmen of the board of trustees, while on May 1, 2015 key Assembly leader Hrair Hovnanian assumed the title of chairman emeritus. Barsamian pointed out that Krikorian is experienced, as he has been with the Assembly since the 1970s. He sued the State Department over its incorrect characterization of the Armenian Genocide, and was one of the chief architects of Section 907, which restricted aid to Azerbaijan because of its blockade of Armenia. The position of chairman is being shared because of the heavy responsibility and burden of work, as well as the opportunity to draw on the different realms of expertise of the co-chairmen.
Talin Yacoubian, a Los Angeles lawyer who was co-chair of the Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee of the Western US (which organized a 160,000-person march) and chair of the Armenian General Benevolent Union Western District Committee of the US, was recently inducted as the newest Assembly trustee. Other experienced board members like Kaloosdian and Mugar remain involved.
A series of changes in staff has been underway. The four-member fulltime staff at the Assembly’s Washington, DC headquarters was expanded to five, when Danielle Saroyan was hired as an associate in the Communications/Press department in September. This number does not include the affiliated Armenian National Institute (ANI), founded in 1997. More new Washington hires are in the works, he said.
Bryan Ardouny remains as the Assembly’s executive director after over a decade in the position.
The Assembly has an office in Yerevan, which used to be headed by a Country Director. In April 2015, the position of Regional Director was created, and Arpi Vartanian, who had worked for the Assembly in various posts in the past, was appointed to it. The office deals with all the countries in the area, as well as Armenia, and has four staff members besides the director.
In January 2016, Mihran Toumajan was appointed as Western Region Director at the Assembly’s Glendale, California offices. The Armenian Tree Project, affiliated with the Assembly, and established in 1993, has an office in Watertown and one in Yerevan. Jeanmarie Papelian was hired as its executive director in May 2015 to replace managing director Tom Garabedian.
The Washington headquarters itself has just been moved to a more spacious location on 15th Street, only a few blocks away from the White House. This will, among other things, allow the showcasing of materials from the Armenian National Institute’s archives pertaining to the Armenian Genocide, including the Morgenthau Library. The headquarters also hosts the offices of the Legate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) and the Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic in the US.
Barsamian spoke about the nature and mission of the Assembly. “The Armenian Assembly is an Armenian-American organization. I am most proud of the fact that it is nonpartisan and not aligned with any US or Armenian political party. We cannot endorse candidates for any election in the US, as we are a 501(c)3,” he said. “It is an inclusive organization, not exclusive, so that you can belong to the Assembly, and still, for example, be a part of the Armenian National Committee of America.”
People should understand, Barsamian declared, that it is not a community-based organization, and is not involved in arts or culture per se. Instead, he said, “We believe that the Armenian Assembly will be a strong conduit for US-Armenian relations both at the state and federal level. We are now bringing in leaders who understand that this is the mission of the organization.”
Barsamian continued, “We are investing in Armenia, trying to raise the standard of living in Armenia, and security is a big part of that. We are asking the United States, which can help with security, to work with Russia and France as part of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to make sure that the region does not become destabilized.”
“Right now,” he said, “we are focused on Karabagh and the ceasefire violations of the Azeris.” The Assembly, said Barsamian, “talks to both the Administration and the US mediator of the OSCE about the ceasefire violations caused by Azerbaijan on a daily basis. Azerbaijan needs to be held accountable for those violations.” He added, “We have the ear of Congress. Unlike Azerbaijan and Turkey, which have aligned and spent millions of dollars on paid lobbyists, we use our network of Armenian-American citizens who live in this country.”
The Assembly on January 29 sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew opposing a potential bailout of Azerbaijan by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
“That the US is even considering a package of this magnitude for a rogue nation, with its human rights record and lack of regard for its neighbors, shows the power of the Azeri lobby, and why the Armenian Assembly needs to exist. If Azerbaijan is rewarded with a bailout package, it will send the wrong message –— that dictators can get away with egregious violations with no repercussions. The Azeris have been scored at the absolute bottom [of human rights country listings] by Human Rights Watch, yet the US has been reluctant to criticize the Azeris for across-the-board violations until just recently, after direct protest from the Assembly in DC,” Barsamian said.
Now, the US mediator has been very critical of Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s relations with Turkey and the ongoing denial of the Armenian Genocide by the latter constitute another set of ongoing major concerns for the Armenian Assembly. Barsamian said, “At this time, more and more people in Turkey openly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. The question is how will the government of Turkey respond to calls for open acknowledgement and account for this dark chapter in their history.” He stressed that, “There has to be full accounting for what was done. Lives were lost, properties taken and churches confiscated and demolished. Just like we need to hold ISIS accountable, the inheritors of the Ottomans need to account for this to the Armenian people.”
Barsamian added that the Assembly would want to be part of any legal case that is brought against Turkey in this connection.
While Barsamian said that the Assembly would love for Turkey to be a member of the European Union (EU), in order for this to happen, it has to act more like Europeans. In other words, he said, “Instead of being more multicultural, Turkey has started conflicts with the Kurds again. It talks about a good neighbor policy, but I am not sure how many of its neighbors consider Turkey to be a good neighbor.” Turkey has to open its borders fully with Armenia and its other neighbors if it is to enter the EU, he added.
Barsamian said that the US relationship with Turkey is not going in a good direction and US attitudes are changing. He declared, “Turkey has not a good job of sealing its porous borders and seems to be supporting ISIS according to some reports.” He noted that many world leaders, including US Vice President Joseph Biden, are confirming that ISIS is selling oil to or through Turkey.
Barsamian declared that the Assembly has not given up on building an Armenian Genocide museum in Washington despite its clashes with the Cafesjian Family Foundation. ANI already has an online museum, and, according to Barsamian, ANI’s informational website last year had more hits than any other genocide site in the US, with over 4 million hits.
While parts of its collection will be accessible to readers in the new Assembly offices, the organization is still looking at other potential properties for a museum. Barsamian said that “it would take a few strong new donors along with the ones we already have. It is a big project and somebody must be deeply passionate about the project. We, the Armenian Assembly, are passionate about it. We need to regroup around a new leadership for the museum project. We need both the resources and leadership to move it forward.”
Barsamian was co-chairman of the Massachusetts Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee last year, which organized four major events in Boston with great attendance. He said, “The significant take-away [lesson] was that people took us very seriously. The effort we made was professional and serious. All organizations worked together flawlessly. It gives me hope and pride that we can indeed work together as Armenians in a very professional manner.”
He was optimistic about the impact of the centennial commemorative events. Barsamian declared, “Nothing went without notice. Having 15,000 people in Times Square in New York City was noticed, with the entire United Nations ambassador corps at St. Vartan Cathedral. Having the Massachusetts Congressional delegation with us, and the governor, senators and all high level officials, and having around 160,000 people in Los Angeles for the largest demonstration ever in the history of that city did not go without notice. And all the while countries continued to recognize the Armenian Genocide throughout the world.”
Internationally, he said, “What we learned last year is that the world fully understands and affirms the Armenian Genocide, so it is now an issue for Turkey and its government to deal with and understand its recent past.” With more and more countries recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Barsamian said, “my hope is that the US does not end up becoming one of the last in the tiers of countries to formally and unequivocally reaffirm its recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”
He said that in a different sense, the Washington DC commemoration was the most significant event of the year, because it brought together the Armenian Church’s hierarchy and people. He said, “To have our entire community together with catholicoi and all the bishops with full unity of our church is not something we can now walk back from.”
Barsamian issued a challenge for the church hierarchy, proclaiming, “It is truly time to unite our church. It is not something the people can do. It is something the leadership can do…That will be the true legacy of these two catholicoi and the bishops.”
Current developments in the Middle East have created a third set of issues that the Assembly must urgently deal with today, Barsamian pointed out. He said, “As Armenian Americans, we should reflect back 100 years to a time when we could not ourselves do anything about the situation of Armenians and Christians in the Middle East. There is a call for action now. We need to redouble our efforts and help those, whether Christian, Yezidi or Muslim, in the Middle East, to get safe passage to Armenia.”
Barsamian suggested that all Armenian organizations should develop a “come to home” policy for assistance and resettlement for all Armenians. In addition, he said, non-Armenian victims of Middle Eastern turmoil should be assisted to resettle in Armenia. Barsamian said that the Assembly is working with the Near East Foundation and others on such issues when it meets with the US National Security Council and State Department in Washington DC in closed-door meetings. The Assembly is also talking with all Armenian organizational leaders regularly, he said, so that the voice of the Armenians is heard in Washington.
Barsamian said, “Armenians have been leaving the major urban centers to settle all around the country. Our goal is to have organizations in all 50 states. We have them in around 25 states now.” These state organizations work on the Congressional and state level on issues relevant to Armenians. Barsamian said that it was largely due to the Assembly’s work that some 43 states now recognize the Armenian Genocide.
The Assembly is going to be represented at both Democratic and Republican presidential national conventions this year, Barsamian revealed. He said, “We usually get involved in a lot of the subcommittee meetings, and we meet with members and leadership.” It has also been present during some primaries, such as in New Hampshire this year.
The Terjenian-Thomas Assembly Internship Program offers another route for people to become involved in Armenian affairs. It is the oldest and largest such Armenian program, dating back to 1977 in Washington DC. The Assembly also started a second program for internships in Armenia.